Joel Garreau, Edge City: Life on the New Frontier (1991)
Postwar developments like Irvine or Tysons Corner may be ambitious, but will they ever develop proper urban civilization? Three decades ago, one reporter tried to find out
The past decade has seen considerable growth in — and, subsequently, an almost-as-considerable contraction of — what I think of as the online "city media." Compelled to keep the content mill turning in lean times as well as fat, most of these sites have resorted to the reliable form of the recommended-reading list. Certain titles tend to appear over and over again in these roundups of the ten, twenty, 50, 100 "best city books": The Death and Life of Great American Cities, The City in History, Learning from Las Vegas, The Power Broker, City of Quartz. But one book strikes me as conspicuous by its absence: Joel Garreau's Edge City, which I don't think I've seen named even once. Yet when it was published just over thirty years ago, it seems to have made a considerable impact on the city-related discourse of the day. Why the apparent passage into irrelevance?
One potential explanation lies in the sheer unfashionableness of the places the book examines. Irvine, California; Tysons Corner, Virginia; King of Prussia, Pennsylvania: these are just a few of the eponymous "Edge Cities," all consisting of relatively high concentrations of office and retail (and to a lesser extent, residential) space thrown up in America since the Second World War on formerly exurban or rural land. This isn't to say that they were fashionable in the late nineteen-eighties, when Garreau was researching them, but they were as least newer than they are today. They were also, as Malcolm Gladwell might put it, "under-theorized," which in combination with their novelty — not to mention their booming growth — would have made them an irresistible subject for a journalist of the right cast of mind. Garreau, a reporter and editor at the Washington Post with an interest in American demographics, was that journalist.
In every respect, Edge City is a journalist's book. Garreau alludes to months, even years spent criscrossing the United States in order to get a handle on these strange new neither-urban-nor-suburban environments and what they reflect about the way we live now — or at least the way we lived at the turn of the nineteen-nineties. This entailed conducting countless many interviews with those who live in Edge Cities, those who build Edge Cities, and those who study Edge Cities, many of them directly quoted along with descriptions of their physical appearance. I suspect reporters do this when they write books to enhance the memorability of figures particularly important to their narratives, and indeed, when I read Garreau describe Tysons Corner mastermind Til Hazel as "looking at the end of a barn with its peak razored off," I didn't soon forget it.